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26 July

There is every reason to fear the return of Boris Johnson as prime minister

If the Tories crash to defeat at the next election, would anyone bet against them embracing Johnson as their saviour?

By Martin Fletcher

Many adjectives attach themselves to Boris Johnson: mendacious, amoral, narcissistic, ill-disciplined, lazy. Now we have a new one. It is “deluded”, for he seems to think he can renege on his own resignation and remain Prime Minister.

“He definitely does not want to resign. He wants to carry on and he believes that, with the membership behind him, he can,” Peter Cruddas, the Tory donor whom Johnson ennobled against official advice, told the Daily Telegraph after meeting the disgraced Prime Minister at Chequers.

This is pure fantasy. Although Johnson will not leave office until 5 September, he was forced to announce his resignation on 7 July after 57 of his own ministers and scores of back-bench Tory MPs demanded he step down. By then, according to YouGov, his approval rating had plunged to -48 among the electorate as a whole, and even among 2019 Conservative voters 54 per cent wanted him to go. In July’s survey of Tory party members by the ConservativeHome website, Johnson enjoyed the lowest satisfaction rating, -21, of any member of his cabinet.

Johnson seems unable to accept that he has become so hated. In his graceless resignation speech he blamed his downfall not on his own scandalous conduct in No 10, but on “relentless sledging” and the “herd instinct” of Tory MPs. Now he appears to have seized on the fact that more than 10,000 Tory party members have supposedly joined Cruddas’s “Bring back Boris” campaign, signing a petition demanding that they – as opposed to their MPs – be given a vote on whether Johnson should have to resign.

That may sound a lot, but it is barely 5 per cent of the total membership. Party officials scoff at the idea of a second vote, and party members will instead start choosing Johnson’s successor – Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak – as early as next week.

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The more pertinent question is whether Johnson can hope to return to No 10 in the longer term, and that is a prospect less easily dismissed.

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The nightmare scenario goes like this. Truss or Sunak inherit the ghastly economic mess that Johnson is leaving behind. The Tories crash to defeat in the next general election. The party leader resigns as Keir Starmer becomes prime minister at the head of a fragile minority or coalition government faced with the same dire economic problems.

Johnson, resentful and revengeful, has meanwhile retired to the backbenches where he has made huge amounts of money and sniped relentlessly at his successor, accusing him or her of betraying his legacy. He has also deployed his peerless ability to command attention and undoubted way with words to disseminate a potent new – but fictitious – narrative in which he is the victim of establishment treachery.

He would point out that in 2019 he won the biggest Tory majority since 1987. He would argue that he had a mandate from 14 million voters, and was well on his way to delivering his promises to the “people” when he was “betrayed” by Westminster’s self-serving ministers and MPs. He would urge his divided, defeated and demoralised party to re-elect him leader so he could finish the job.

Would anyone bet against the Tories doing so? Johnson would still be by far the most colourful and engaging politician in Britain. He would savage Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions. He alone could hope to win back Red Wall seats. He would doubtless enjoy the backing of the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Sun, and of assorted Tory donors.

As for the transgressions that sullied his first premiership – his lying, partying, cronyism, betrayals, disregard for the law, scorn for ethical standards, protection of bullies and sexual predators – well, people’s memories are short, populists prosper in hard times, and Johnson remains the consummate con man.

[See also: Sunak or Truss: Who won the Tory leadership debate?]